Out of all of the calls about service dogs and emotional support animals that I have received, I think only one was legitimate. That one legitimate call was unfortunately from a woman who needed a service dog but was completely unrealistic about the suitability of her pet dog for public access. There is a huge lack of resources, and much confusion on the subjects of service animals, emotional support animals, and therapy dogs too. It’s no wonder that people use these legal terms interchangeably and owners of stores and restaurants have no idea how to deal with “fakers.”
I’m writing this blog so people with legitimate disabilities have resources to learn about their rights. Equally important, I am writing this for people who are “faking” or trying to pass off their pet or Emotional Support Animal as a Service Dog. They should understand why this is detrimental to Americans with Disabilities, and understand that this is a crime in Florida. I live in Florida, so my readers in other states should check their local laws.
There are many laws governing disability rights: federal, local, DOT, and probably others that I don’t even know about. In addition, since I am a dog trainer, I am limiting this blog to cover only dogs and it does not cover specifics on other species of animals.
First, some definitions.
Disability: Disability means, with respect to an individual, a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.
Major life activities: The phrase major life activities means functions such as caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.
Service Dog is a dog individually trained to perform a task for the benefit of a person with a disability. The crime deterrent effects of an animal’s presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.
1. Rights of disabled individuals using service dogs:
Service dogs are allowed in public facilities and accommodations according to Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A Service Animal must be allowed to accompany the handler to any place in the building or facility where members of the public, program participants, customers, or clients are allowed. Even if the business or public program has a “no pets” policy, it may not deny entry to a person with a Service Animal.
A public entity may ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what work or task the animal has been trained to perform.
Handler responsibilities in public:
“The handler is responsible for the care and supervision of his or her Service Animal. If a service animal behaves in an unacceptable way and the person with a disability does not control the animal, a business or other entity does not have to allow the animal onto its premises. Uncontrolled barking, jumping on other people, or running away from the handler are examples of unacceptable behavior for a Service Animal. A business has the right to deny access to a dog that disrupts their business.”
2. Americans with disabilities that have a Service Dog are protected by Federal Fair Housing laws.
These laws allow for accommodations even in housing where there is a no-pet policy.
3. In addition, “employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation.
Allowing an individual with a disability to have a Service Animal or an Emotional Support Animal accompany them to work may be considered an accommodation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the employment provisions of the ADA (Title I), does not have a specific regulation on Service Animals. ”In the case of a Service Animal or an Emotional Support Animal, if the disability is not obvious and/or the reason the animal is needed is not clear, an employer may request documentation to establish the existence of a disability and how the animal helps the individual perform his or her job.”
4. Finally, the Air Carrier Access Act permits Service Dogs on flights under their miscellaneous provisions 382.55
Obtaining and Training a Service Dog:
Most pet dogs are not suitable as service dogs. The training process for service dogs is rigorous. Any legitimate service dog trainer will first require that a dog pass a public access test before training for any task to benefit an individual with a disability. Public access skills include, but are not limited to, the dog being calm and comfortable in even the most uncomfortable situations.
Keep in mind that Service Dogs also have needs. The dog needs a caregiver. Please see the blog links below for more information.
Article: 10 Things That Make a Dog Unsuitable for Service Work: http://www.anythingpawsable.com/10-things-make-dog-unsuitable-service-dog-work/#.VutjwBIrKi4
Article: Things to Know before Partnering with a Service Dog: http://www.anythingpawsable.com/before-partnering-with-a-service-dog/#.Vutj8RIrKi4
“Fake” Service Dogs:
In Florida, using a fake service animal is a second degree misdemeanor and perpetrators face a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail. The law went into effect on July 1, 2015. The law was designed to protect people that legitimately need and use Service Animals. Passing your pet dog or Emotional Support Dog off as a Service Dog is a crime.
A person who knowingly and willfully misrepresents herself or himself, through conduct or verbal or written notice, as using a Service Animal and being qualified to use a Service Animal or as a trainer of a Service Animal commits a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083 and must perform 30 hours of community service for an organization that serves individuals with disabilities, or for another entity or organization at the discretion of the court, to be completed in not more than 6 months.
Some other crimes you may knowingly or unknowingly commit would be allowing your pet dog or Emotional Support Animal to interfere with the use of a Service Animal by obstructing, intimidating, or otherwise jeopardizing the safety of the animal or its user. This is a second degree misdemeanor for the first offense. Your reactive, untrained, Emotional Support Dog or pet dog can cause harm to a disabled individual and/or their Service Dog just by being in the same facility. That’s many training hours and other resources ruined because being around aggressive and reactive dogs can make the Service Dog reactive and unpredictable. That’s why faking a Service Dogdue to ignorance or just plain selfishness, is so damaging and has now become a misdemeanor crime.
Emotional Support Dog (or animal) (ESA):
ESAs provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.
1. Rights of disabled individuals using Emotional Support Dogs:
While Emotional Support Animals or Comfort Animals are often used as part of a medical treatment plan as therapy animals, they are not considered service animals under the ADA. The rights of disabled individuals that use Emotional Support Animals do not include access to public facilities. Disabled persons that use ESAs have no rights to enter restaurants, grocery stores, or other facilities where dogs are prohibited due to health codes or the policy of the owner. Of course, many stores and other public facilities may be pet friendly or ignorant of the law and ESAs are allowed along with pets.
Keep in mind that stating verbally or in writing that your pet dog or ESA is a Service Dog is a crime in Florida.
2. Emotional Support Animals that do not qualify as service animals under the ADA may qualify as reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act.
Disabled individuals may have rights to housing even where there is a no-pet policy.
3. In addition, “employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation.”
Allowing an individual with a disability to have a Service Animal or an Emotional Support Animal accompany them to work may be considered an accommodation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the employment provisions of the ADA (Title I), does not have a specific regulation for Service Animals. ”In the case of a service animal or an emotional support animal, if the disability is not obvious and/or the reason the animal is needed is not clear, an employer may request documentation to establish the existence of a disability and how the animal helps the individual perform his or her job.”
4. Finally, the Air Carrier Access Act permits Emotional Support Animals on flights in their miscellaneous provisions 382.55
2020 Update: On December 2, 2020, the Department of Transportation announced a revision in the Air Carrier Access Act regulation. The new regulation indicates that it no longer considers an emotional support animal to be a service animal. Full details are at the link below.
A note from Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC (with her permission… thank you my friend)
BEING ASKED TO WRITE A LETTER FOR AN EMOTIONAL SUPPORT ANIMAL? This is for all my mental health colleagues. Without going into details, the laws (especially under HUD) allow for people with disabilities to have Emotional Support Animals (pets, not specifically trained as Service Animals would be), even in housing where pets are not permitted and also on transportation. The only thing they need for this is a letter from a medical or mental health professional saying they have a disability and need an Emotional Support Animal. While there are people with legitimate needs, this has also turned into a bit of a nightmare with people using the provision to get around housing rules just so they can have pets where they live. Mental health professionals are now being bombarded with requests. There are even “therapists” online who have people complete some questionnaires, charge money of course, and provide those letters just on the basis of the questionnaires. This is highly unethical if you ask me. Legitimate therapists charge for legitimate services of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
So, what does one do when approached by someone who seeks you out for such a letter? Very often, these are NOT your regular clients, but someone calling specifically for this purpose. I do not write letters for people I don’t see regularly. In case it’s helpful, here’s what I typically say (or something to this effect):
“Unless you are an ongoing client of mine where I can assess your situation and do a complete treatment plan which we then implement together, I am not in a position to diagnose, determine the need for an emotional support animal, or incorporate it into a treatment plan. I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
I do not offer alternatives. If they genuinely want therapy, then I can provide that or make a referral, but my experience with this so far (myself and people I supervise) is that they often are just looking for the letter. No go when that’s the case!
Therapy dogs provide comfort and and affection to individuals at various facilities and programs by invitation. The individuals may or may not have a disability. With permission, volunteers bring trained pets to reduce stress.
Please visit the website of my favorite Animal Assisted Therapy Program at the link below. Thank you Marni Bellavia for all of the wonderful work you do with your volunteers!